If you’d like to experience raw hate and ignorance, do a Twitter search for the words “Doris Truong” and “Tillerson.” Angry tweets and retweets claim the home page editor of the Washington Post was caught sneaking pictures of Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson’s notes during his confirmation hearing. There’s video. Memes. Calls for her firing because this is proof she’s a “scumbag.”
Dead wrong. It wasn’t Doris.
No matter. She was publicly vilified and personally attacked.
Her Post account of the Kafka-esque experience as a victim of fake news.
“Trolls Decided I Was Taking Pictures of Rex Tillerson’s Notes. I Wasn’t Even There” is chilling. The fake news had started spreading overnight, and:
By the time I woke up, trolls had commented on social media channels besides Twitter. My Facebook feed had dozens of angry messages from people I didn’t know, as did comments on my Instagram account. Even my rarely used YouTube channel attracted attention. My emails and my voicemail included messages calling me “pathetic” and a “sneaky thief.”
A lot of the comments also focused on my Chinese heritage, implying — or outright stating — that I must be spying for China. Some called for an FBI investigation of what they deemed illegal behavior.”
I know Doris. She’s a friend. I’ve taught and coached in her newsroom and have worked with her on diversity programs for journalism associations. She’s a smart, strong and ethical journalist.
What drove the assault on her? Fake news. Political tribalism. Racism. Sexism. All were on display in the litany of errors and insults that enveloped her.
But those were actually the results of something even more basic: a lack of critical thinking about the video at the heart of the story.
Watch it. But when you do so, watch it with questions, not assumptions. Remember the key questions my ethics mentor, Dr. Bob Steele, taught generations of journalists to ask:
What do I know?
What do I need to know?
Had anyone viewing the video operated using those questions, rather than their assumptions and biases, things could have been different.
Let’s try it.
We know: There is a video of a woman.
We need to know:
We know: She has something in her hands that appears to be a phone.
We need to know:
We know: She is doing something with the thing that looks like a phone.
We know: This is happening at a government hearing.
We need to know:
We know: Something is on the table.
We need to know:
And then, the most important questions:
The term “fake news,” in its short life, has already been twisted into pretzel shapes by people for whom it is “information I don’t agree with.”
Doris Truong’s case shows us the real damage of fake news. It can be propagated not only by those who traffic in deception and racism, but by any of us who fail to do the hard work of critical thinking.
When you’re tempted to pass judgment and share it with others, remember: What do I know? What do I need to know?
Jill Geisler is the inaugural Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity, a position designed to connect Loyola’s School of Communication with the needs and interests of contemporary and aspiring media professionals worldwide. Geisler is known internationally as a teacher and coach of leaders in media and beyond. @JillGeisler
The first bank opened in the United States in 1791, offering citizens a safe place to store funds. Within years, criminals figured out how to capitalize on these strategically placed caches of money. In 1798, the Bank of Pennsylvania was the site of the first bank theft, when two men with forged keys entered the bank and emptied the vault and safety deposit boxes. Since then, law officials and bank personnel have been coming up with increasingly sophisticated methods of thwarting criminals intent on grabbing easy money.
As time progresses, technology becomes increasingly valuable in both preventing crime and catching criminals once a crime has taken place. However, this technology is also imbued with the capacity to become a significant threat to personal privacy.
In recent years, banks used exploding dye packs to discourage theft and help track thieves. Now, many financial institutions are switching to implanting global positioning system (GPS) devices in bags of money to find criminals on the run through geolocation.
The strategy appears to work. Using this technology, law enforcement officials catch bank robbers in record time. Wichita police were able to apprehend a suspect just 15 minutes after he committed the robbery by tracking a device hidden in the bags of money he had stolen. Similar situations in states such as Washington, Colorado, New York and others throughout the United States point to the effectiveness of GPS tracking systems in both deterring crime and leading to faster, safer criminal apprehension.
Recent years have seen GPS technology being perfected through smaller, more accurate trackers. In 2013, scientists at North Dakota State University made a breakthrough by developing Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips that are ultra-thin and virtually undetectable. The BBC reported that the chips could be used to track bank notes, legal documents, tickets, and more. Not only could this technology help foil bank robbers, but it can help follow “dark money,” the illicit funds exchanged by governments and organizations, criminal and otherwise, to support organized crime or political intrigue.
Dark money is any money of unknown origin. Commonly, politically active nonprofits and corporate entities such as limited liability companies (LLCs) are the primary generators of these types of funds. Nonprofits formed under sections 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) of the U.S. tax code are not required to disclose their donors. Moreover, LLCs formed in some states, including Delaware and Wyoming, can hide behind the only disclosure they are obliged to make: the company’s name. Forces can fund LLCs such as these to further a political agenda or donate to an independent political action committee (PAC) that’s able to raise unlimited sums of money for a candidate or chosen issue. These large PACs are called super PACs, and they can influence government policies for their small, but often financially dominant, donors.
According to the nonpartisan group Center for Responsive Politics, about $300 million in dark money was used to finance various political messages leading up to the 2012 election. In 2016, this figure increased tenfold, according to U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, and, as reported by the Huffington Post, one group, the National Rifle Association (NRA), spent more than $52 million dollars supporting Republican control of the government.
The Federal Election Commission sets up campaign finance laws, which put forward limits and prohibitions on contributions to maintain fair, balanced election and legislative processes. Dark money is a way around these procedures a trend that helps subvert our democratic process.
Another area of shady money is “black money.” Black money, as defined by Investopedia, is “Money earned through any illegal activity uncontrolled by country regulations. Black money proceeds are usually received in cash from underground economic activity and, as such, are not taxed. Recipients of black money must hide it, spend it only in the underground economy, or give it the appearance of legitimacy through money laundering.”
The phenomenon of black money is alive and well in India, where the World Bank estimates that the black money economy is one-fifth of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). In action aimed at preventing individuals from continuing to hoard untaxed funds, the Indian government announced this November that it would ban two of the largest bills in its currency system. There is a three-fold reason for doing so: to target terrorists and other organizations that thrive on unaccounted-for money; to stem the tide of counterfeit money; and to more tightly regulate the Indian system of black money that relies on cash payments to avoid the payment of taxes.
Friends of mine from the Indian state of Kerala explained to me that many Indians sell houses or other valuables at less than half the market price, collecting the other part of the value in black money. This activity is confirmed by Geeta Anand in a column for The New York Times. She claims, “Real estate has been particularly hard hit by the ban on black money, since sale documents filed with the government typically reflect only the portion of the sale price paid by check. As a result, the sellers have no way of explaining to the tax authorities how they received the cash, which can account for as much as 60 percent of the deal.” The money, collected over the years, is hidden away in caches within the sellers’ homes or even buried.
When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the announcement regarding the abolition of the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes, he added that citizens could trade in the banned notes for newer currency until the end of the year, after which time the large bills would be obsolete. Also, citizens could only exchange up to 4,000 rupees per day, or around $60. People with substantial amounts of money to convert would be forced to explain the source of the funds and be at risk for tax investigations.
Shortly after the announcement, a video debuted on What’s App showing someone washing a recently issued Rs 2,000 bank note. The immersion of the bill in water caused a RFID tracking strip running down the side of the bill to emerge. The video went viral and subsequently caused panic as thousands of Indians believed the government was intent on using a “Nano GPS chip” in cash to track the currency and possibly to locate hidden stockpiles of money.
Even news sources such as rednewswire.com reported that the GPS tracking of cash would allow government entities to track money buried up to 120 meters below the ground using satellite technology. The media outlets further claimed that attempted removal of the chip would render the money useless.
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) was quick to dismiss the claims, pointing out that it would be impossible to implant money with Nano GPS chips. According to news18.com, RBI spokesperson Alpana Killawala said, “Such a technology does not exist at the moment in the world, then how can we introduce such a feature?”
But the technology does exist.
The world’s smallest fully integrated GPS receiver in the world, the OriginGPS Nano Spider, which, at about 0.16 inches wide,.16 inches long and .08 inches deep, is smaller than a piece of pencil lead. It could most certainly carry out that sort of tracking for the Indian government. However, Trak.in, an online site reporting on business issues in India, dismissed the Indian government’s supposed chipping of cash as a rumor based on the fact that it would cost at least Rs50 per note to manufacture the tracking chips. Although it does seem an extreme and costly move for the government to make, Trak.in didn’t take RFID technology into consideration when declaring the rumor a hoax. As opposed to a GPS chip, a passive RFID tag for currency could cost as little as 12 cents per tag. While even this might seem like a lot to pay per note, it would more than pay for itself by tracking undeclared money in a country in which only 1 percent of the population has paid taxes. Since the ban on bills, the Indian government received about $80 billion in untaxed money between Nov.10 and Nov. 18.
While such tracking might be a boon for governments and anti-terrorism organizations tracking dark money or illicit funds, it may also be an invasion of privacy that goes far beyond the simple monitoring of transactions.
Implementing RFID tracking in currency implies the government knows the location of individuals carrying the currency. Government agencies using such technology would gain the ability to watch where and how their citizens spend their money and possibly pinpoint their locations at any given time. Even more worrisome is the fact that RFID technology is hackable. There are at least seven known ways to hack a RFID chip. It is easy to imagine criminals actively searching a city street for the victim with the most money, deactivating the locator, then moving in for the theft.
Geolocation technology also opens up privacy issues for children who are carrying money marked with GPS tracking technology. It could make them potential targets for crime and violate their rights under the continually changing U.S. Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA), which currently requires parental consent for geolocation data collection from children under the age of 13.
Even without RFID or GPS chip technology, our society is a trackable one. Browsers such as Google Chrome, Safari and Mozilla Firefox can note your physical location from computer input. Twitter can track you, even if you don’t use geotags. Facebook is another application that can follow your movements across town or across the world. Moreover, both iPhone and Android mobile phones keep a record of your location over time and download the information in a file stored on your device. At least one police department has run afoul of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) by accessing this data using portable data extraction devices. Also, if you think you’ve escaped detection by your apps or devices, you may be still be tracked when you use Wi-Fi.
All things considered, the ability of law enforcement officials to track stolen, dark or black money might just outweigh privacy concerns. Money that is being used to subvert the election process or support terrorist groups, or is being hidden as a means of avoiding taxation that contributes to public coffers, offers insult to an egalitarian society. As a global society, we are constantly developing new rules and regulations to keep up with our rapidly changing and increasingly technical world. We’ve already put rules in place, including COPPA, the Electronic Digital Privacy Act (EDPA), the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), to stem the tide of privacy-disrupting digital technologies and practices. Similarly appropriate legislation can overcome, or at least mitigate, privacy issues associated with currency tracking.
Nikki B. Williams is a bestselling author based in Houston, Texas. She writes about fact and fiction and the realms between, and her nonfiction work appears in both online and print publications around the world. Follow her on Twitter @williamsbnikki or at www.gottabeewriting.com.
All journalists, from their first day in class or on the job, are taught a sacrosanct principle that’s spoken of in reverential tones and repeated as if part of a monastic ritual: objectivity.
It’s almost as if working journalists must become the Fair Witness of science fiction author Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.” In the futuristic novel, a Fair Witness is “rigorously trained to observe, remember, and report without prejudice, distortion, lapses in memory, or personal involvement.” So strict are their professional rules that they may only comment on what they have observed, and make no extrapolations or assumptions until they have seen, heard or felt something themselves.
This rigor sounds exactly like what is demanded of journalists under the classic definition of objectivity, the ideal toward which many reporters strive on a daily basis. With the profusion of fake news, propaganda and opinion masquerading as truth in the digital arena, the need for journalists who can discern fact from fiction would appear to make objectivity all the more essential now.
However, the fair witness and the concept of perfect objectivity share another commonality: They’re both fiction.
Heresy? No. I argue that we simply cannot be objective. Every one of us, no matter how hard we try, comes to every situation with our own set of individual experiences and beliefs, all of which shape the act of observation.
It is the journalism corollary to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, established by German physicist Werner Heisenberg, it states that it is impossible to measure both the position and momentum of a sub-atomic particle with absolute precision. “Either way, your observation of either position or momentum will be inaccurate and, more important, the act of observation affects the particle being observed,” explains article in the Guardian.
Let me emphasize the part of Heisenberg’s principle that I believe is relevant to journalism and specifically reporting: the act of observation actually affects how a subject is observed and perceived.
Why? This happens simply because each of us observes situations through our own unique lenses, which are developed by our experiences and polished by our beliefs and biases.
When I say biases, I do not imply that journalists come to a topic with preconceived notions, nor do I accuse them of having an actual slant, the type that would draw condemnation from politicians or disaffected members of the public. By biases, I mean a person’s natural set of predilections through which he or she views the world in the simplest, most comfortable or comforting way.
Then, there are structural biases that journalism as a profession imposes, which the Columbia Journalism Review’s Brent Cunningham describes in his July 2003 article: “Reporters are biased toward conflict because it is more interesting than stories without conflict; we are biased toward sticking with the pack because it is safe; we are biased toward event-driven coverage because it is easier; we are biased toward existing narratives because they are safe and easy.”
So, if we accept that those biases do exist, then we can agree that it is impossible to be completely objective about a topic and our approach to it.
Because as Michael Schudson argues, objectivity “is at once a moral ideal, a set of reporting and editing practices, and an observable pattern of news writing,” how can journalists get close to achieving the ideal, given the limitations imposed by their own humanity? Is the ideal worth maintaining?
If objectivity is sought to provide a stronger presentation of facts to help readers judge truth for themselves, then fidelity to facts, balance and impartiality matters. The question is how best to use those standards in everyday journalism by evolving our concept of objectivity.
Cunningham points out how objectivity, as classically conceived, can actually inhibit journalists by a) forcing them to rely on official sources too much, leaving them exposed to public relations spin and b) keeping their own expertise from being brought to the fore.
He cites the case of Louisville Courier-Journal reporter Jason Riley, whose editor asked him to attribute to a source a conclusion Riley had drawn after months of reporting. Riley’s expertise was unique – he had spent six months digging through the particular court files involved, so there may have been no greater expert on the matter than he was. Yet, because of the rules of objectivity, his editor refused to accept him as an authoritative source.
I ran into this challenge often as a journalist for Reuters News, where impartiality and freedom from bias are enshrined in the Reuters Trust Principles and overseen by a board of some of the world’s most “eminent people from the world of politics, diplomacy, journalism, public service and business.”
Make no mistake: I did and still do vigorously support and uphold those principles, as they give Reuters a unique power and competitive advantage over most news organizations: the most reluctant, dangerous or skeptical sources knew they would be treated fairly by Reuters because of its long-held reputation for impartiality.
That being said, my colleagues and I would often have to keep our unique expertise out of our stories because of the strictures of objectivity.
As the bureau chief in Sri Lanka, I routinely spoke to everyone that mattered in the country, just as any of my fellow bureau chiefs across the world did as part of their day-to-day work. So, my colleagues and I routinely had unique insights gleaned from countless conversations with diplomats, businesspeople and government leaders, and many of those same people sought us out for our perspectives and authoritative knowledge.
But when it came time to put that expertise into print, I rarely could find a source who knew what I knew and could say it on the record. So, instead of sharing that knowledge directly with readers in plain English, I’d have to present it within the limiting orthodoxy of news writing style and leave the conclusions between the lines for the adept reader to discover.
It was only when Reuters experimented with different formats, such as monthly political risk reports, that I could say exactly what I knew and believed. Readers were happy and no one complained of bias, precisely because Reuters had made it clear that what I was saying in that format was a forecast based on my expertise – not a news story subject to the ordinary expectation of objectivity and impartial recitation of facts.
In a digital news environment where we suffer from an abundance of news stories, including poorly sourced if not outright false ones, I argue that expertise and authority should be the new paradigm to replace strait-laced objectivity.
Fairness and fidelity to facts, two crucial underpinnings of the objectivity model, are inherent in expertise and authority. An expert has already dismissed those ideas which do not hold up to factual scrutiny, and that faithfulness to the provable in turn grants him or her authority. With that authority, a journalist can question any institution or set of facts within his or her area of expertise.
The best part of substituting expertise and authority for objectivity is that expertise and authority are self-governing and identify a person’s “bias” from the outset.
Whereas a reporter tied to the unreachable ideal of objectivity is constantly exposed to attacks by interested partisans, the expert-authority journalists are protected by their bodies of provable experience and can counter attacks on their integrity through their command of the facts. That’s the self-governing aspect of the expert-authority model: such journalists derive their power from accuracy and reputation, so they are well-motivated to stay above reproach.
This approach will require educating readers and bringing back the clear labeling of news, analysis and opinion that used to be provided on newspaper or magazine pages, but is all too often lost on the Internet. By defining the terms, journalism will be served by both removing the artificial impediments of an impossible ideal and entering into dialogue with readers with an up-front declaration of the author’s perspective. Readers will then know how to process what’s been written.
So, let’s leave Heisenberg and the Fair Witness in the realms of physics and science fiction. Here’s to the Fair Expert.
Bryson Hull is a Chicago-based communications consultant, writer and editor who serves a diverse client base. He spent a decade overseas with Reuters News and Bloomberg, working in nearly 20 countries across Africa, the Middle East and Asia. He has covered financial markets spanning foreign exchange to oil and gas, and conflicts from Somalia to Afghanistan.
Imagine wristwatch sensors that can detect perspiration and monitor pulse rates – not as part of an exercise regimen, but in a workplace setting. In 2014, an MIT professor used such technology to monitor 57 stock and bond traders in a simulated lab, measuring their ability to handle stress while trading millions of dollars on Wall Street. The results revealed that the top performers, including one trader who made more than $1 million in a couple of hours, were able to quickly handle and recover from volatility. On the other hand, the traders who didn’t perform as well, including one individual who lost close to $5 million, were not as elastic in the face of market volatility.
The value of this type of technology is obvious. Not only can investment companies view dashboards to see if their employees are panicking, which could lead to bad decisions, but they can also use wristwatch sensors to test job applicants’ ability to handle the stock market’s ups and downs.
Wall Street investment companies aren’t the only organizations that want to use behavioral analytics and other types of workplace monitoring to improve performance.
Consulting firm Deloitte recently partnered with Humanyze, a Boston-based startup, to provide employees in one of its offices with smart badges (worn on lanyards) that allow Deloitte to track employee movement and vocal activity; the company recently renovated the office to improve collaboration and wanted to find out if its efforts were successful.
Deloitte was able to determine that employees preferred to congregate in certain areas, and although they had petitioned for new treadmills in the gym, the exercise equipment was collecting a lot of dust. Participation in this experiment was voluntary.
Humanyze also allows companies to equip their smart badges with microphones. While actual conversations are not being recorded, the badges can determine how long employees talk, and conversely, how long they listen when others are talking.
When the badges were used at Bank of America, data revealed that high-performing teams consistently shared communication strategies, with similarities in their frequency of conversations, use of body language and tone of voice. One call center’s manager decided to change how the teams took coffee breaks. Instead of staggering the breaks, all members of a particular team took their breaks at the same time so they could socialize. This improved engagement levels and also increased productivity levels.
One software company used events known as “beer meets” to encourage better communication, but after using the badges, they discovered this was not an effective approach. Instead, installing longer tables in the lunchroom produced the desired effect.
Genome, a customizable software program designed by a company called Klick Health, can extract data from employees’ card keys to determine whether they take the elevator or the stairs. Klick put that information to use when it launched a stair-climbing competition to encourage its employees to be healthier. The card keys also allow everyone in the company to see when employees are in the building or not.
Using PC monitoring software, companies such as Veriato allow employers to track inactivity, emails, social media, documents, file access, search terms and keystrokes.
Other types of time-tracking and management software can be used to track productivity rates by monitoring the amount of time an employee spends on each project. Proponents of this software say it can help to identify underperforming employees and encourage workers to avoid distractions. Plus, the technology makes it easier to determine how much time should be allocated for various projects.
While these employee monitoring techniques appear to improve productivity and limit theft, what are the ethical issues with tracking a worker’s movements? Are companies infringing on their employees’ privacy?
Nichole Wesson, a Los Angeles-based career coach and consultant, believes the ethicality of this practice is determined by answering four questions:
Wesson admits that in our data-driven culture, companies routinely gather consumer data through a variety of methods, but she thinks it’s a more complex situation when dealing with employees. “Unlike safeguards for security, waste or fraud, which are often stated in the employee interview or new hire orientation, an employee may feel that tracking through a badge for purposes outside of these reasons may have too much of a ‘Big Brother’ feel,” Wesson explains.
And she doesn’t think companies can afford to drop the ball in this area. “A company would need to show not only why they are tracking to improve employee engagement, but also implement changes in accordance to the data gathered,” Wesson says. “If [they don’t], employee engagement would be at risk and so would employee loyalty.”
While companies are trying to improve the bottom line, employees want to know how monitoring will be beneficial to them. Stressing this WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) factor makes a big difference. John Reed, senior executive director for Robert Half Technology, says he believes that companies should detail the WIIFM component when communicating with employees about monitoring strategies. “They should explain to employees throughout the organization how the tracking of this data could improve their day-to-day work environment,” he says.
How much privacy should employees expect to have at work?
Unless they’re in the bathroom, employees shouldn’t have much of an expectation that they will be afforded privacy at work, and Dr. Christopher Bauer, ethics expert and the author of “Better Ethics Now: Avoid the Ethics Disaster You Never Saw Coming,” doesn’t consider tracking unethical. “Companies pay employees wages for being on the clock,” Reed explains, “and if it is not intrusive and they’re being honest, it’s not an ethical issue – although there may be unethical ways to use it.”
So, what would Bauer consider intrusive? “Employers have no right to listen in on personal phone calls, but they do have a right to know how long you’re on personal phone calls because you’re on their time, and they have a right to know how you’re spending it,” he says.
Employees may not embrace workplace monitoring, so Reed said he believes they should be given the choice of “opting out” whenever possible. Sometimes, companies might provide that option during the experimental phase, but once tracking becomes a standard, fully-implemented policy, employees typically don’t have a say in the matter.
This lack of choice can be problematic for several reasons. For example, voice monitoring reveals that high-performing teams tend to communicate more frequently. How might that affect someone who is a good worker but doesn’t talk a lot? And what about employees who give a certain performance because they know they’re being monitored? For example, once they find out that high-performing teams tend to communicate more often, they engage in lengthy, often unnecessary conversations only because their vocal activity is being recorded.
Also, while monitoring whether an employee takes the elevator or the steps can be used to encourage healthier practices, will the employees who don’t participate be penalized?
Employees may not take the stairs for a variety of reasons: They might have a knee injury or be trying to juggle a laptop, a briefcase and a cup of coffee.
Bauer says, “I’m not sure of the legalities of using behavioral analytics this way, but I think employees should always have the right to talk about what makes them uncomfortable and why.” However, he raises a good question: How is this practice significantly different from other types of monitoring, such as video surveillance or a supervisor watching employees?
So, do dissenting employees have any legal recourse? They might, according to Jonathan Westover, associate professor of organizational leadership in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University.
“While the courts tend to consistently side with organizations when it comes to questions of workplace privacy (meaning legally, employees have little right to an expectation of privacy), depending on the nature of the employment relationship (at will or contractual) and the organization’s own internal written policies and procedures, an employee may actually have a contractual right to privacy,” Westover explains.
That’s why transparency is crucial, according to Reed. “Problems could occur if employees didn’t feel they were fully informed about tracking practices,” he says, “which is why it’s imperative for leaders and security teams to be clear when communicating plans and policies.”
Even in situations where employees don’t have a legal basis to contest monitoring, Westover says a reasonable expectation of privacy is a basic human right and companies should care if workers find this practice unethical: “It is important to consider the impact such practices will have on the broader organizational culture, employee morale, employee creativity and innovation, and ultimately long-term, sustainable employee productivity.”
In other words, even if organizations believe they have the legal and ethical right to monitor their employees’ movements and actions, if those employees don’t agree, Westover says, “They can and will vote with their feet.”
Some employees may be more inclined than others to view tracking negatively. Reed says it can certainly be stressful to some employees to think “Big Brother” is continuously watching them. “To avoid problems with employee retention, which might result from this anxiety about being watched, Reed suggests that companies “who are implementing or do implement these kinds of practices should be upfront with current and potential employees.”
However, potential workers or new employees might be less likely to find this practice offensive. “For new employees, this is all they know,” Bauer says, “but for existing employees, if all of a sudden, they’re told that they’re going to be tracked, these workers may wonder if the company doesn’t trust them.”
Understandably, companies are seeking ways to be more competitive, efficient and profitable – and employees are usually the focus of those efforts. However, Bauer advises organizations to be cautious: “As technology allows for more employee tracking, this issue will come up again and again, so companies need to make sure that their policies are clear, enforceable and in line with the mandates of free employee expression.”
Terri Williams writes for a variety of clients including USA Today, Yahoo, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, Investopedia, and Robert Half. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Follow her on Twitter @Territoryone.
The formula for mass internet outrage is increasingly nebulous; we never know what will set off the next online frenzy. But Milo Yiannopoulos, senior editor at Breitbart, seems to have it all figured out. As a particularly vocal voice of the alt-right movement, he has actually carved out a niche market for himself by exploiting the volatile, at times fickle cycles of online outrage. He has developed an audience by routinely saying outrageous things in protest of a culture he considers to be too mired in political correctness. Not surprisingly, he is a proud supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Yiannopoulos claims to detest what he perceives to be oversensitivity, while thriving on the recreational outrage culture he so often provokes. This provocation is precisely how he gets attention, and it’s simply not plausible that he actually believes some of the outrageous things he says. Yiannopoulos is a troll. That’s not meant to be an insult; it’s just the best term to describe what he does for a living, because in no universe could his actions be considered journalism. That is not to say Yiannopoulos’ asinine commentary does not have broader implications. The fact that he has amassed something of a cult following is evidence enough that his rhetoric is attractive to a specific segment of conservatives.
After the release of the new “Ghostbusters” film, Yiannopoulos wrote a review titled
“Teenage Boys with Tits: Here’s my problem with ‘Ghostbusters.’” Following the publication of Yiannopoulos’ dismal review, star Leslie Jones was bombarded with a large number of hateful tweets, many of which were racially charged. Yiannopoulos himself later joined in on the attacks against the actress. In one tweet, he described Jones as “barely literate.” Jones spent the day retweeting the most vitriolic messages, and later announced that she was leaving the platform due to her negative experience. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey invited Jones to direct message him about the situation. Subsequently, Yiannopoulos, along with many others involved in the harassment, were permanently banned from the platform. Twitter released a statement: “…no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others … We know many people believe we have not done enough to curb this type of behavior on Twitter. We agree.” Vox published an extremely thorough play-by-play of the whole situation.
Yiannopoulos accused Twitter of banning him for political reasons. He claimed that Twitter allows jihadists to use the social media platform but silences conservatives. In one comment published via Brietbart, Yiannopoulos said, “With the cowardly suspension of my account, Twitter has confirmed itself as a safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists, but a no-go zone for conservatives.” This remark was part of his broader strategy to paint liberals as tone deaf and irresponsible on the matter of global terrorism. It is a rhetorically effective strategy, but there are a number of specious assumptions baked into such claims. Yiannopoulos’ argument is a classic case of apples and oranges. Is it true that Twitter “allows” jihadists on their platform? One wonders if Islamic terrorists and other religious extremists should be presented with a box to check confirming their intentions before signing up for a service like Twitter. Would they check such a box? Probably not. So, it’s a distinct and challenging problem for Twitter to identify those ill-intentioned users. If anything, Yiannopoulos and his army of trolls make this problem decidedly burdensome, because Twitter not only must devote time and resources to removing jihadists, but it also has to deal with cases of harassment.
In February, Twitter released a statement that it had shut down 125,000 accounts related to the terrorist group ISIS. Twitter also stated that the company had significantly bulked up the team responsible for fighting such activity. According to the Obama administration, traffic related to terrorist accounts on Twitter has decreased 45 percent over the past two years. Still, new accounts are created frequently. It’s clear that this is an ongoing problem that needs constant attention. But why does that in turn have any implications whatsoever on the situation with Yiannopoulos? They are separate issues. In practical terms, this type of response is a non sequitur. It’s akin to a shoplifter who gets caught claiming to be treated unfairly on the basis that the cops are casually allowing murderers to go free, as if the shoplifter is the best source of information on that matter. It may be true that murders are occurring, but that does not mean the police are “allowing” it to happen. Cops are not omnipresent. They cannot stop all murders. Does that fact mean arresting the shoplifter is unfair treatment? Does it mean shoplifters should be given free rein to steal whatever they please while police officers devote all their resources to finding murderers? No reasonable person would make that claim. The same logic applies to Yiannopoulos’ complaint about Twitter. It might be true that Twitter should do more to stop jihadists from using its platform, but that argument is irrelevant to the matter at hand. The true horror of jihadism doesn’t make online harassment any less repugnant and disgraceful.
Let’s take seriously the claim that Twitter banning Yiannopoulos violates his freedom of speech. As advocates of free speech often note, the most extreme cases are what truly test our dedication to the First Amendment. For instance, even though most people hate doing so, we’ve begrudgingly tolerated the Westboro Baptist Church holding demonstrations near the funerals of fallen soldiers. Yes, there is near uniform agreement that the Westboro Baptist Church’s actions are consistently and utterly despicable, but so long as the protesters maintain a reasonable distance from the actual funeral so as not to interfere with the event, they are exercising their right to peaceably assemble, and the government cannot prohibit them from doing so. That would be a valid point in Milo’s case, if he were a U.S. citizen being prosecuted by the U.S. government. But he’s not. He was banned from a widely used social media platform for purportedly violating the site’s terms of service. There’s a major difference between the government’s response to the Westboro Baptist Church and Twitter’s response to Yiannopoulos. However, if you took Yiannopoulos’ claim at his word, you’d be compelled to believe this whole situation is an untenable, outrageous violation of human rights on par with, say, the imprisonment of Ai Weiwei in China for his vocal criticism of the government. But, of course, those two situations are not even in the same ballpark. They’re not even on the same planet.
Is there a time and place for trolls in this ever-changing digital landscape? Probably not, but that’s a topic for another time. The point here is that this is not a free speech issue. The United States has some of the most enduring, robust protections of free speech relative to any other industrialized nation in the world. Even under such protections – even given the most charitable version of events in Yiannopoulos’ favor – Twitter banning Yiannopoulos could not be construed as an infringement of free speech. Individuals do not have the right to exposure on a corporation’s platform; Twitter is not legally bound to serve as a host for Yiannopoulos’ hateful rhetoric. A world in which that were the case would be a very absurd world indeed. The fact that Yiannopoulos clearly feels entitled to such exposure is just further proof that his position is virtually untenable. It was untenable before the advent of the internet, and it’s untenable now. His banning is akin to a troll being banned from any typical online forum for whatever reason. The fact that Twitter is a large platform does not change the underlying principles at play.
There are a number of well-founded reasons why an organization like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one that typically champions free speech, is not decrying the fact that Yiannopoulos was issued a lifetime ban from Twitter. Yiannopoulos would be quick to say it’s because the ACLU has a distinct liberal bias, and for the sake of brevity, let’s assume that’s true. Still, it is certainly safe to assume that this event’s historical significance is utterly trivial. Milo Yiannopoulos getting banned from Twitter is somewhere between Phil Robertson being suspended from the TV show “Duck Dynasty” for making homophobic comments and certain businesses severing relations with Paula Deen after her unfortunate use of a certain racial epithet. There are an astounding number instances of actual infringements on free speech in the world. To mention these instances in the same breath as the situation concerning Yiannopoulos would not only be specious, it would be laughable. Despite any perceived biases, it’s pertinent to make it clear to anyone reading this that the ACLU does more for the cause of free speech in a day than Yiannopoulos has done throughout his entire career as a “provocateur.”
Twitter’s ban on Yiannopoulos is simply not important. It’s not even on the ACLU’s radar, and even if it were, the ACLU wouldn’t care. What is important is that people understand the meaning of free speech as a set of nuanced ethical principles. A TV personality making asinine remarks and being publicly chided for it is not the same thing as an infringement of free speech. An online personality engaging in systematic harassment of some unsuspecting individual on a social media platform and consequently being banned from said platform does not constitute a violation of free speech.
If we are to think about the right to free speech as an assurance for one to freely engage in a marketplace of ideas, it makes sense to make a distinction between access to the marketplace itself and access to platforms readily available to the public on said market. It’s easy to conflate those two concepts. Conservative rabble-rousers seem to do it quite often. Let’s imagine that you’re in business as, say, a tire manufacturer in the United States. Now, it is certainly your right to start a business, should you have the means and wherewithal to do so. There are laws protecting your right to go through the startup process, and there are laws preventing others from engaging in coercive and violent acts to harm your business. Hypothetically, if someone were to set fire to your factory, or even attempt to spread libelous rumors about your business, you could take them to court. Granted, libel cases are difficult, but if you could prove that someone was intentionally spreading harmful lies about your business, and that your business suffered as a result, you’d likely have a good case. However, if there’s a rubber supplier that refuses to work with you for ambiguous reasons, there’s little legal recourse. Moreover, if a landowner refuses to sell you a space for a warehouse, assuming that individual is not discriminating against you based on your affiliation with a protected class (and it’s important to note here that political affiliation is generally not considered a protected class), again, you have no legal recourse. You cannot force someone do business with you, nor should you be allowed to do so.
Let’s try to think about the ban from Twitter’s perspective. If the company indeed banned Yiannopoulos for political reasons, said banning would be somewhat self-defeating; it would play right into the narrative that Yiannopoulos espouses, which is that he’s a downtrodden hero for the free-speech crowd. He’s playing that card already. The fact remains, though, that Yiannopoulos has not been silenced. In actuality, he’s been emboldened by this whole episode. Yiannopoulos actually publicly thanked Twitter for banning him, because he believes the whole situation has generated buzz about him. As questionable as some of Twitter’s actions have been in the past, we can at least assume the company was smart enough to know this publicity was inevitable. Yet, Twitter still decided to ban him. It logically follows that the social media giant thought it was a worthwhile decision, regardless of whether Yiannopoulos derived some glory from it. Why? Twitter is beholden to its shareholders and its user base — a young, predominantly liberal user base. This is not a crime, and it’s not unethical. It’s just a fact.
Let’s dispel another specious proposition: Twitter should not be heralded as a champion against online bullies. This ban likely wasn’t an action Twitter took out of empathy for Leslie Jones, although it is entirely possible Dorsey did empathize with her. After all, Jones was systematically and relentlessly harassed, essentially for doing her job. What she experienced was absurd. But whether or not the executives at Twitter felt empathy for Jones is likely to be incidental, at least as far as it influenced the company’s decision to take action. Corporations rarely deal in empathy as a currency, except when it affects their bottom line. Ironically, this is a point that traditional business conservatives tend to see as intuitive. It increasingly seems that the ban was in part a public relations move, but one deeply rooted in pragmatism. Twitter banned Yiannopoulos due to pressure from users, due to a need to combat the increased perception that it does not adequately handle harassment, and most importantly, due to the fact that Yiannopoulos clearly did violate the platform’s terms of service. In what universe can Twitter’s choice be construed as unethical? There is a distinction between a company taking an action for purely ideological reasons and a company taking actions for reasons primarily related to ensuring smooth operations and its continued survival. Yiannopoulos unwittingly gave Twitter an ideal pretext to make an example out of him, and the company made an executive decision to do so.
If that sounds cynical, consider a hypothetical scenario in which Twitter’s board, or whoever has influence at the company, does have an established liberal agenda, and that there’s a direct prerogative at the company to silence any voices of dissent, i.e. “conservatives.” If that were really true, why is it generally only the fringe, relatively extreme cases that Twitter acts upon? Bill O’Reilly doesn’t have any trouble from the administrators on Twitter, nor does Sean Hannity, Anne Coulter or Glenn Beck. Couldn’t it just be that most professional pundits, left or right, have the good sense not to engage in harassment and needlessly inflammatory behavior on Twitter? Could it be that lesser known fringe commentators and other trolls are simply more prone to violate Twitter’s terms of service? Some statistics might put this into perspective. Generally, the more education a person has, the more likely they are to hold predominantly liberal positions on a wide number of issues. This positive ascription has a somewhat impolite inverse: The largely homogeneous intersection of voters that identifies with Trump, and in turn the alt-right movement as a whole, tends to be less educated. It’s an uncomfortable truth with which we must reckon.
That folks of the alt-right persuasion are typically less educated is not a fact to be celebrated by “enlightened” liberals or arrogantly held over the heads of Trump supporters. It’s data that ought to be bemoaned by anyone who values civil discourse, specifically in the online realm where anonymity continues to reign supreme. People who find themselves roped in by alt-right rhetoric are being exploited. They have not been trained to recognize fallacious reasoning; Yiannopoulos is just one of the unscrupulous talking heads speaking to them on their level. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise when his tactics strategically appeal to such a demographic. He’s doing what a businessman does: exploiting a niche market. Unfortunately, as long as there is an ambient level of ignorance in the world, there is strong a market for trolls such as Yiannopoulos. The real world operates by market forces. Yiannopoulos is beholden to his demographic, and Twitter is beholden to its own. The situation is really that simple. This is merely a case in which the interests of two demographics were at odds with one another. It’s essentially free speech in action, on a macro level.
David Stockdale is a freelance writer from the Chicagoland area. His political columns and book reviews have been featured in AND Magazine. His fictional work has appeared in Electric Rather, The Commonline Journal, Midwest Literary Magazine and Go Read Your Lunch. Two of his essays are featured in A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics. David can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and his URL is http://davidstockdale.tumblr.com/.